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Athens Academy and the Call for a New South

I’d originally been planning to write something completely untopical about the Khazar Empire because I always like talking about them, but something came up. Something that, frankly, makes me fairly angry. For those who do not know, I’m from the city of Athens, Georgia, some of you might recognize it as the University of Georgia’s college town. For 12 years, I attended Athens Academy, a private college prep school. Recently, that school came under fire for asking a local bookshop called Avid, to remove “objectionable” books from a lower (elementary) school book fair. In context, “objectionable” meant homosexual. The bookstore, unable to reach a solution with the school, cancelled the last day of the fair and held a separate one at an unaffiliated location in Athens.

A quick history lesson about Athens Academy: it was founded in 1967 as public schools across Georgia desegregated, mostly as a white flight school. It endured because it remains the only secular private school in the region, because it pulled back from some of the generally racist ideals it held at its founding, and because of its high standard of academic excellence. Though the current makeup of the school is in no way diverse, it is certainly better than it once was, and arguably better than most other private schools in the region. For a while, it seemed the school was heading in the right direction. It still had a ways to go, yes, but it seemed like it might eventually get there. At least, that’s how it felt during my many years there. I, of course, do not claim that my experience with Athens Academy is reminiscent of all others who attended the school.

For those not directly involved, and specifically for the Marylanders reading this, it’s easy to wonder why any of this matters. Sure, the school messed up, but this is just a provincial issue, important only down in Athens, in the deepest parts of the South. It, however, represents a greater issue faced throughout the south. When John Thorsen, Athens Academy’s head of school, proclaimed, “We are an inclusive and safe place for our students,” and “Athens Academy has long been proud to be an inclusive, safe, caring, and diverse community to our students,” in his emails to parents and students after the incident, he certainly wasn’t lying, he believes these statements completely, and it's possible he isn’t even wrong by some metrics. Compared to regional private schools, all of which are Christian schools, in which bible classes are part of the curriculum, one could consider Athens Academy a bastion of inclusivity and diversity, which is the exact reason this is more than just a local issue. The fact that Athens Academy can still claim to be an inclusive community, even after this and many other incidents, is astounding, and is proof of a deeper concern than just this singular instance of homophobia.

Despite the continuing predictions that Georgia will become a battleground state and conservatives will lose their hold over its politics, which happened in 2016 and is already happening for 2020, the Deep South remains generally mired in social conservatism. Though Roy Moore lost his senatorial election in Alabama, we were all surprised when it happened, and that says something. Athens Academy decided to ask to have those books moved because, “several parents raised concerns...that [the books] contained situations they were not yet prepared to discuss with their young children.” The children in question are aged 3 to 9, meaning that the parents of said children are probably fairly young themselves. Their generation was the one that we all hoped would move past these outdated ideas, but they remain mired in that old swamp of bigotry. Confederate flags still fly outside of many houses and in the backs of many trucks. Statues of Confederate “war heroes” still sit in the centers of many cities. Many still believe the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery. Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, and other prejudices still fester in the minds of the greater southern political and social consciousnesses.

So what does this all mean? That the Deep South is forever relegated to an existence of thinly-veiled racial tension and evangelist homophobia? I certainly hope not. I spent 14 years of my life in Georgia, and I grew up with the next generation of southerners, and I’d like to believe they are capable of pulling themselves out of this swamp. Amongst them are liberals, feminists, LGBTQIA+ activists, a few socialists, and even one particularly dedicated anarchocommunist. The mere existence of the newsletter The Bitter Southerner, catered specifically towards liberal, progressive southerners, shows that change is already happening. Many former conservatives I know, refusing to support Donald Trump, proudly declared themselves libertarians during the 2016 election, and I even remember hearing them standing up against homophobic comments made by other students. Studies also support this ever-so-slight shift to the left. I watched a group of students and alumni respond in outrage to the bookstore incident, many even sent emails to the administration. I read some of them on social media posts. They were well-composed, well-written, and polite, but they also expressed the students’ outrage clearly and without question.

In 1877, Henry R. Grady called for the establishment of what he called a “New South.” When he said it in the 19th century, he wanted Southerners to move past plantation-based economics and antebellum traditions. Though I do not claim anything close to Grady’s historical importance (nor his readership, for that matter), I wish to make a similar call. For all of modern American history, the South has been synonymous with backwardness and racism. The new generation of southerners has the power to change that. For those of you still down there, I ask you to keep fighting for change. It will come, because it has to, and because you can make it come. For my Maryland readers, and for anyone else from outside the South who manages to stumble upon this, I ask that you help those who need it in their struggles to affect change. Finally, for self-imposed exiles like myself, no matter your reasons for fleeing north, I ask that you don’t forget about the struggles you left behind. Together, we can create a new south, one that no longer retains the bigotry and hatred that defined the old.

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